20 Sep 2016

When Stewart Shepherd started delving into his family history he had a feeling he might uncover some scandal.

His father had strongly discouraged him from doing any genealogical research and he has discovered there might have been a reason for that.

Divorce, orphanages and a connection to a case involving a severed hand at Taylor’s Mistake have all popped up since he began with a six-week “Start Your New Zealand Family History Research” course run through Christchurch City Libraries.

Stewart Shepherd

Stewart Shepherd

Stewart, 70, wanted to find out more about his grandfather John Shepherd, also known as Thomas Shepherd, who lived with Stewart’s family when he was a child and told him colourful stories about his life while they sat on the porch together. “His stories were absolutely fascinating but of course I didn’t write them down.” When Stewart retired last year from a long career as a mental health nurse he had the chance to throw himself into the project. 

The name of his grandmother’s father, Elisha Godfrey, also appears in reports about two brothers coming across a severed human hand at Taylor’s Mistake beach while they were out fishing in 1885. The case, known as the Howard Mystery, was probably the first case of attempted insurance fraud in New Zealand.He has found that his grandfather divorced his first wife in 1904 after she apparently  behaved "improperly" at a time when divorce was highly unusual. He thinks he has tracked down a record of his grandfather and siblings being placed into the Lyttelton Orphanage when he was a child, and some evidence hinting that his grandfather’s father might not have been his biological father.

Public library staff have been “incredible” in helping him track down the information, he says, and he recommends the libraries’ family history courses to anyone curious about their roots. “I couldn’t believe the resources and time that they’ve helped me with. It was such a challenge and we had so little data to start with.” Christchurch City Libraries staff provide advice on how to start research, the best ways to find family information and how to take care of family papers and photographs. 

Information Librarian Lyn Gifford, who helps run the family history courses, said she'd had experiences where people were in tears after finding out information about their relatives.  "We've had some really, really grateful people who just didn't think they'd find out very much. Sometimes it's just a matter of knowing where to look." 

Stewart Shepherd's relatives

Stewart Shepherd

The main focus at the libraries is European resources primarily Christchurch and Canterbury information from the 19th and early 20th century. Local church registers until about 1920 have been transcribed and are available through the libraries, recording early baptisms and burials around Canterbury. 

Librarians can also point out their eResources including Ancestry.com Library Edition and electoral rolls. There are dedicated family history computers at the libraries Family History Centre at Central Library Manchester, Central Library Peterborough, Te Hapua:Halswell Centre, Upper Riccarton Library and Fendalton Library. There is a Book a Librarian service for people who need some extra help.

• Christchurch City Libraries is running another six week “Start your New Zealand Family History Research” course on Tuesdays from October 18 until November 22, 6pm-8pm. (Four weeks at South Library and two weeks at Central Library Manchester)